Online text books – a ministry to the Developing World (and poor students)

I’ve been thinking about online texts for theology for a number of years, I have a good idea of what I want to see happen, but I have no idea how to make it happen.

A bit of background: I’m a web developer by former trade and training, I have written Content Management Systems and even a Wiki engine, and have spent a lot of time thinking about how to put information onto the Internet. I have also taught basic theological courses (Moore College’s PTC) in India, and have a bit of an idea of the teaching needs there – although I am by no means an expert. My passion is to improve the teaching in the Developing World. Thus I am training at Moore College with the specific plan of becoming a lecturer.

The Vision

So, what do I want to see happen? A single site that integrates Biblical and Systematic theology and Biblical Studies in an interwoven web. This site would contain pages on:

Biblical Studies:

  • Each book of the Bible, with high level summary (Biblical Dictionary level). These are a home page for the pages below.
  • Each major theme in a specific book, tracing the theme through the book (as is common in Theological colleges, but not som much in commentaries). These link to the commentary pages of the specific passages involved.
  • Each chapter or pericope of each book, giving a commentray that is usable for a diploma-trained theologian (ie BST Commentaries). These link back to the theme pages that this chapter raises.
  • The difficult passages of a book, giving different perspectives from an evangelical point of view, and discussion of original language issues where appropriate (ie John 1:1 vs JW’s or the Unforgivable Sin etc). These will link to other exegetical and theological issue pages.

Biblical Theology:

  • Tracing themes of the Bible throughout Biblical History. These pages will link to the pages on the themes for each book, where such a page exists. This allows the reader to pursue a theme in more detail.

Systematic Theology:

  • Each major Systematic category as traditionally divided (not a major issue, see Advantages below). These are the home pages for the pages below.
  • Each topic of the category. An introduction and a collection of all the pertinent primary verses – linking to the commentary pages.
  • A discussion of the various ways – evangelical and non evangelical – of understanding what the verses mean. This includes pros and cons. Each of these can be a separate page if they are big enough. These will link to the theological and exegetical issues involved. The discussion can appropriately condemn false teaching, and represent the loving debates that exist within the evangelical family.

Advantages

Obviously, this vision is huge, and cannot happen overnight. However, it has some major advantages over other approaches, that can make this both very plausible, and very valuable for both the Developed and Developing Worlds.

Slow Growth: This is the greatest advantage. Pages will grow and develop as experts in the appropriate fields invest the time. The theology section can start with basic outlines of the major topics as found in a diploma level course (the existing PTC courses, Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth or Peter Jensen’s unpublished text are great examples). The Commentaries will develop in two streams – (1)  the “difficult passages” may be worked on as specific Theological pages require them to be and (2) as scholars develop a commentary or lecturers or even preachers  prepare a series, they can put up the bigger picture stuff that they develop.

Multiple Authorship: This is suggested by the slow growth. Individual people can contribute theological topics, or books of the Bible, or Biblical-Theological themes etc. This will not be a wiki per se, as only invited contributors will be allowed, and they will be encouraged to write whole pages / sections.

Electronic: The great advantage to the Developing World is that this is not on paper. Internet access is spreading rapidly, and much of the Church that has difficulties accessing printed books has no problems accessing web sites. The problem they have is the dearth of useful and trustworthy internet resources.

Non Linear: Another advantage is that the page are an interlinked web, rather than a linear book. This is particularly important for Systematic Theology. Many Systematic Theology texts are affected by the need to start somewhere. The choice of starting point effects the flow of the argument.  As in interwoven web, there is no starting point. The section on the Scriptures links to the section on the Spirit, which links to the section on the nature of God etc. The interrelations and interdependence of the doctrines are shown by the interconnections of the pages. Equally, the Systematic books are strengthened by their links to exegetical work. Effectively, the hermeneutic/systematic spiral is represented by the interlinking of the pages.

Normalisation: This is a database concept that means keeping information in one place, and linking to it heaps. Thus a page on the divinity of Jesus does not need to go into the exegesis of John 1:1, nor does one on Election need to contain the details of the debates about Romans 9-11. Instead, they link to the appropriate pages. This avoids Barth-style small-print exegesis, but also avoids the equal trap of not having exegetical support for the use of a passage.

Learning Paths: For education purposes, this system can support learning paths. These are a progression of pages that the student is guided through to teach them a single subject. At each page, the student can go off the reservation and read all the connected information that they are interested in, and the learning path is telling them where to go next once they have sated their curiosity.

I’m not the only one who thinks this is a good idea:

http://theologianswithoutborders.blogspot.com/2009/06/seth-godin-tells-teachers-quit.html

http://biblicalstudiesorguk.blogspot.com/

Making it a Reality

There are two ways of making this work. The first is the Wikipedia model – start small, allow contributions from multiple sources and slowly build up the quality of the content. There is a site that is doing this, called Theopedia.com. However, this method is unreliable, slow and results in inconsistent content. This is especially true for Theology, which is not a field for interested amateurs to be educating other interested amateurs.

The better method is to get scholars and experts to contribute in the fields of their expertise. If a single Theological Institution gets behind it, and encourages its staff to contribute on topics as they are able, I estimate that the site can be in a operative state in 5 years. If multiple institutions support it, then the time is slashed massively. This seems like a long time, but some paper commentaries and systematic theologies take as long, if not longer, to write.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Online text books – a ministry to the Developing World (and poor students)

  1. That what I was thinking. It is by far the best platform available today. However, I don’t want to be pinned down to a platform too early if there was a better concept out there.

    Look at Theopedia, they use Mediawiki (wikipedia’s engine) with some modifications – like pop-up bible verses. Technologically, It’s quite cool. The only problem with the engine is that the Talk page system is awful. That’s a minor issue.

  2. After thought and discussion, I would make one modification to the Wiki concept. Instead of pages added to and amended multiple times, I would want pages written by individuals, and credited to them (like the New Bible Dictionary). If modified/revised, then list both authors. This gives academic rigour to the articles, and credibility to the site. It allows a higher quality of writing, since paragraphs are not chopped and changed. Most importantly, it increases the trust factor, since you can know the qualifications of the contributor/s on the page that you are reading.

    Effectively it is a Content Management System, with very good link management, rather than a true Wiki.

  3. Um, on a sideline, funding? I assume publishers like IVP fund their dictionaries by selling them, I know every academic loves to contribute to understanding etc, but even if they do, you’ll need an editor or two as well, just to figure out and divy up who to ask.

    • Yeah. I dunno.
      My preference would be that the site would be fairly self-regulated. By choosing contributors that you trust, you can pretty much ensure that there will not be any arguments about who gets to do what. You should be able to seriously reduce the amount of administration overhead.

      The actual proofing and posting should not take too much effort, and I’m sure there are enough tech-savvy and theologically trustworthy people who would be willing to volunteer for a cause such as this.

      As for choosing the contributors, if a college came on board and supported it, I would want the heads of department to do the inviting of whoever they think is appropriate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s